By Charles Randall
10 April 2015
Club cricketers would not be surprised at some stinging criticism by the Wisden almanack editor of the ECB attitude towards the recreational game, especially towards the Asian sector.
This was the view of the National Cricket Conference managing director Simon Prodger at the launch of a free-of-charge service for emergency fixtures and spare grounds. He urged the ECB to reach out to the Asian community “as a matter of urgency” and to direct better funding at player pathways and grass roots development programmes in the recreational game.
The National Cricket Conference and south-based Club Cricket Conference co-hosted a meeting in Birmingham last November, attended by 60 Asian delegates, who agreed in principle to create a national body for England and Wales to represent ethnic interests.
This historic meeting followed three years of work by Gulfraz Riaz, the Club Cricket Conference development manager, that led to the setting-up of the South Asian Cricket Leagues Forum in 2013, a successful attempt to encourage ethnic leagues into the mainstream of the cricket family.
Prodger felt that the gap between professional and club cricket had widened again after years of good progress, with Wisden Cricketers' Almanack highlighting the failure of the ECB to address the potential of the Asian communities.
“The National Cricket Conference is playing its part with actions rather than words,” he said. “Before our inauguration in 2014 the Club Cricket Conference made really good progress encouraging the ethnic sectors, both Asian and African-Caribbean, but it has been frustrating that ECB have been slow to fully engage with our work to date. We have to find a way of working together, but there are challenges.”
Wisden launched its 2015 edition at a time when the ECB were assessing high-profile changes after a shockingly bad World Cup performance in New Zealand and Australia. Lawrence Booth, the Wisden editor, blamed attitudes and looked for answers. “If the England team really want to unlock their full potential,” he wrote, “it is perverse to be so reliant on white southern Africans and smash-and-grab raids across the Irish Sea, and so ignore the more natural solution on our doorstep.”
Booth added: “There remains a damaging perception among Britain’s South Asian communities that its best young cricketers are not wanted. The English game needs an Asian player to prosper beyond a few Tests here and there. Too many of England’s Asian cricketers have fallen by the wayside. Only once their impact at international level lives up to the grassroots demographics can the sport claim to be truly representative.”
The speed of change has been too slow, according to Prodger, and even the ECB's commitment to getting the best out of the recreational game and directing funds effectively could be questioned. “The Asian cricket community does indeed feel marginalised,” Prodger said. “And it isn't just the ECB. Town councils are allowing too many public cricket grounds to deteriorate or even disappear. Sunday cricket is a classic example where we have a large number of Asian non-affiliated leagues playing in council parks with unacceptably poor facilities.”
“These ethnic leagues need to have a vested interest in supporting the game as a whole. That is why the Conferences have been working hard to bring them into the mainstream so that a start can be made. Apart from that, there is a huge pool of talent out there we don't know much about – some high calibre players.”
Prodger said the National Cricket Conference, an amalgamation of three bodies from the south, midlands and north, could offer the ECB a good vehicle for energising cricket at recreational level. “Most county boards do a great job with representative cricket and coaching,” he said, “but they are not remitted to see or manage the bigger, national picture. The National Cricket Conference would like to be seen as an ally rather than a potential threat.”
The Wisden editor's notes mentioned the result of the ECB’s national survey, published in November, suggesting that fewer people played the game at recreational level in 2014 than a year before. Booth wrote: “The fall in numbers did not nullify the ECB’s claim that their deal with Sky had brought more money into the sport, nor the work that money has enabled the board to do, especially in women’s and disability cricket. But the maths queried the claim’s relevance.” In other words, the Sky deal had perhaps become counter-productive by taking cricket out of the public limelight every year since 2006 and by reducing interest in playing club cricket.
Prodger commented: “It was to the ECB's credit that they acted immediately after the survey to gather more information. The truth is that nobody knows how many players there are because significant sectors, such as the Asian and Caribbean communities, are off the radar. It is to cricket's discredit that we must be the only major sport that cannot count its participants.”
The Sky deal could not be blamed entirely for the reduction in player numbers. The club sector has paid a price for the creation of the ECB premier leagues under the Lord MacLaurin blueprint to widen the pool of potential professional players. Instead of looking to leagues, all counties set up youth academies for their intake. “This means the ECB have created something of a two-headed beast,” Prodger said. “Player interest in ECB premier league cricket has declined for various reasons, most notably through excessive travel and time, and counties aren't recruiting from them as the ECB's financial investment might warrant. The rise of county academies to improve young players is good for the game, but these depend on the county age-group system for their intakes. Selection within that system is not always ideal.”
The last words can be left to Wisden and the role of television, with highlights on Channel 5 as cricket's only terrestrial presence. “Highlights, with their lack of tension and their appeal to the converted, go only so far,” wrote Booth. “Cricket needs to be able to attract passing trade.”
“The hubbub around the Big Bash at the start of 2015, broadcast in Australia on free-to-air television, was a reminder of a basic truth. Give people the chance to tune into live cricket, and it has a fighting chance of entering the national debate. Ten years on from the greatest Test series of the lot – broadcast to all by Channel 4 – cricket is loitering at the edges of the conversation. If you can remember the celebrations in Trafalgar Square, be sure to tell your grandchildren.”
The recommended retail price of both the standard hardback and soft cover editions of the 2015 Wisden Cricketers' Almanack is £50; the large format is priced at £60 and the leatherbound limited edition is £275. Wisden 2015 is also available as an abridged eBook The Shorter Wisden, containing the best writing from the Almanack, at £12.99.
The Club Cricket Conference continues to offer players overlooked by the ECB network a chance to play high-level representative cricket, usually against county professional 2nd XI opposition. More than a dozen players that have represented CCC over the past three years have gone on to play within the county system.
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